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"Civil Lunatics" Reveal a Disturbing Piece of Human Nature

As human beings, we have an amazing capacity for ignoring the things that make us uncomfortable. We ignore symptoms of deteriorating health until something major goes wrong. We ignore emotional wounds—both in ourselves and in those closest to us. And we are especially adept at turning a blind eye toward spiritual nudgings and twinges of conscience that would lead us to changing our behavior.

This impulse can be hard to quantify, mainly because thinking about it makes us uncomfortable. But it's pictured well in a disturbing practice currently employed by the Nigerian judicial system in western Africa.

The country of Niger has an established police and criminal justice system—one of the remnants of its days as a French colony. There are Nigerian police officers and judges, as well as Nigerian criminals. But another holdover from colonial law has created a new class of individuals in the Nigerian justice system: civil lunatics.

Civil lunatics are people who have been taken to court, either by police or individual citizens, and the magistrate (judge) has decided to have them jailed indefinitely. Civil lunatics often have committed no crime, or very minor crimes, but they have been classified as mentally unstable and can remain in prison for long periods of time without any means of appeal. Some civil lunatics are jailed for life.

Edeh Ogbonnah Bertrand knows firsthand what it means to be labeled as a civil lunatic. He claims he was falsely accused of stealing some bottles of malt beverage by a shopkeeper, who then had a police friend arrest him. Bertrand spent several months in prison without a trial. When he began to protest his treatment, he was declared a civil lunatic and sent to an asylum in Enugu Prison. He remained there for seven years.

Understandably, the people operating the prisons are not happy with the current system. "Civil lunatics are people that the society doesn't want to be roaming around causing problems," says Victoria Uzamaka, controller (warden) of Enugu Prison. "Unfortunately, they are dumped in our prisons."

One solution that Uzamaka is exploring should sound familiar anyone who has read Jesus' words on the subject of prisoners. She says, "We are trying to reach out to the families and to churches, to get them to take care of them—to show them love."

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I. . .was in prison and you came to visit me. . .. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

Even when it makes us uncomfortable.

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